It’s a form of extortion in the mind of Dr. Richard Schneider, talking about the South Pasadena City Council’s reluctance last week to vote in district-based voting following a Malibu attorney’s controversial claim that the City’s at-large electoral system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

On behalf of his client, CVRA, on June 5 Kevin Shenkman alleged that there was polarized voting among Latinos in the South Pasadena electorate and threatened litigation if the City of South Pasadena didn’t adopt a district-based electoral system. In that format, the city will be divided into five separate districts, each to represent the handful of City Council candidates. A councilmember residing in the district is chosen by the voters living in that district. Voters within a district may only vote for one candidate every four years.

“Lawyers have told me this is what’s called ‘an abusive process,’ and really he [Shenkman] should be disbarred,” said Schneider, the mayor pro tem. “He’s taking a law that wasn’t intended for this type of use and is abusing it in order to make money for him and his law firm.”

Schneider is hoping there’s some way to file a complaint against Shenkman through the BAR Association to “see if they can pressure him or disbar him. I don’t know if it can be done or not. We are going to try and communicate with some of the others cities (in which Shenkman has forced legal action) and see if we can get the law changed. We couldn’t put the City’s finances at risk over a potential lawsuit like this.”

In a city the size of South Pasadena, Schneider said this type of outcome is not supposed to happen. “There is no justification for it,” he said. “California law is written badly. It should be consistent with the federal laws. Federal laws put the burden of proof on the person who is suing us to say it’s racially polarized and we need to go to a district election. We have to prove the negative, which is philosophically impossible. You cannot prove that you are not racially polarized. So under California law, you lose. There’s really no way to defend yourself. Because of the financial implications, the cost of defending yourself doesn’t make any sense.”

Fellow councilmember Dr. Marina Khubesrian said it’s clear that every member of the council is upset by the action “we were forced to take,” she said. “It was a difficult decision to make, but at the the end of the day we felt that for the overall health of the City’s financial status, we didn’t want to put the city at risk of having to lose millions and millions of dollars.”

She called Shenkman’s legal action “frivolous and opportunistic,” suggesting he is seeking “easy money.”

Khubesrian said the issue has already been brought to state representatives to get some support in the matter. The councilmember said it will cost the City at least $30,000 because Shenkman “is sort of seen as a catalyst in the law because he brought this to our attention by sending us a letter. There’s a catalyst fee is what I’m being told, because he will claim it took him time to put together the letter and send it. They’re charging us $30,000 for sending us a letter.”

There are 481 cities in California, of which Khubesrian said 81 have already been subjected to Shenkman’s action. According to the councilmember, some have lost up to $4 million. “He’s going to pick off cities one by one. Honestly, everyone needs to get together and change the law. Cities have to have proof of a negative racial polarization, which is very difficult to prove.”

After carefully examining the potential for legal expenses to fight the issue in court and looking at the City’s chances of winning the case, South Pasadena Mayor Michael Cacciotti said,“As a steward of our City’s financial resources, I could not say it was in the best interest for us to fight this case and potentially lose up to $3 million to $5 million. I know our residents wanted the council to vote the other way, but I couldn’t risk that kind of money. It was a sickening vote. There’s really no merit to this case. We as a city are so diverse, so inclusive. It doesn’t make sense.”

The City of Palmdale, reportedly, spent approximately $7 million fighting Shenkman’s claim of polarized voting in its city. The cities of Glendora, La Mirada, West Covina, Arcadia and Monrovia have all faced lawsuits stemming from the CVRA.

During their regularly scheduled July 19 meeting, the City Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution of intent to transition from at-large district-based elections to a district format.

Not one of the councilmembers wanted to make the ultimate decision, each indicating that it was not the best direction to go, “but they were forced to make it based on the potential of significant financial exposure to the city,” explained Interim City Manager Elaine Aguilar. “The council felt that it was in the City’s best interest, given its fiduciary responsibility, to proceed with district elections.”

The way the law is written, Aguilar said, it will be “very difficult” to respond to this type of litigation.

The issue came before the City Council as a result of a letter to the City from Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman, written on behalf of his client, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, and containing allegations that the City of South Pasadena’s at-large electoral system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Shenkman, as outlined in a city report, alleges evidence of Latino “polarized voting” in the South Pasadena electorate and threatens litigation if the city declines to adopt a district-based electoral system.

A letter was sent late last week to Shenkman, indicating the City’s efforts to adopt a district format in future council elections.

South Pasadena Interim City Manager Elaine Aguilar said racially polarized voting “occurs when there is a difference between the choice of candidates preferred by voters in a protected class or a minority and the choice of candidates preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate on minorities.”

The CVRA defines a “protected class” broadly as a “class of voters who are members of a race, color or language minority group.”

A large number of people were outspoken during the public comment period regarding the issue, most encouraging the City Council to oppose the district-based electoral system during last week’s council meeting.

“This change doesn’t automatically happen overnight,” explained Aguilar. “The next step in the process is to begin looking at what the districts will look like. Ultimately, it will lead to the City’s adoption of those geographic boundaries.”

The City of South Pasadena will conduct four public hearings over the next 90 days “in which the community will be asked to provide input on how they would like the districts to be drawn,” explained Anthony Mejia, South Pasadena’s chief city clerk.

The city will potentially be broken up into five distinct districts, in which voters will be allowed to elect one candidate from each of those districts to be seated as a City Councilmember.

In future elections, voters will be only allowed to select one candidate every four years instead of every two years.

“It’s of the utmost importance that members of the community either provide their feedback in written form or by attending the public hearings so that we can make sure the districts represent the interest of our residents,” said Mejia.

For more information, contact the city clerk’s office at (626) 403-7230.

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